Opinion: What Kwame Kilpatrick's commutation means for Detroiters

Karen Dumas

In case you were otherwise distracted on Wednesday, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s sentence was commuted by outgoing President Donald Trump after serving seven years of a 28-year sentence.

There have been many discussions over the past years about the severity of his sentence from supporters, and the negative fallout of his crime by critics. His impact and influence have been undeniable, fueled by never-waning public intrigue even while he was behind bars. And now that he’s out, what does it mean for the city he loved and was forced to leave?

While decisions made by Kwame Kilpatrick may have contributed, they were not the sole factors of Detroit’s demise, Dumas writes.

For some, the answer is nothing. His release is just another chapter in a closed book on one part of Detroit’s storied history. For those who didn’t do their homework, Kilpatrick became a convenient poster child of Detroit’s downfall, overlooking variables like a declining population and tax base, and its peripheral impact that spelled trouble for decades.

Struggling schools, crime, unemployment, declining neighborhoods and then bankruptcy had become part of Detroit’s brand. While decisions made by Kilpatrick may have contributed, they were not the sole factors of Detroit’s demise.

Yet for others, his release represents a reminder of the hope that had seemingly been incarcerated with him. In a predominantly Black city that is now led by a White mayor, many have since felt left out of an equation that they feel should look more like the people who live here and have lived here through thick and thin.

Disappointed that the rah-rah around the city’s narrative of a comeback doesn’t mirror the reality of those who live here, many quietly and constantly complain that the city’s future — political and otherwise — feels elusive and out of their hands.

While every good politician said the right things following Kilpatrick’s release, the reality is that they should have reason to pause as his freedom may be just what those less engaged Detroiters need to remind them that they are still in charge of who is elected to represent them and that votes — and voters — speak louder than campaign contributions.

While Kilpatrick cannot run for office, and may not even or ever return to Detroit, his larger-than-life persona resonates with the struggles and oversight that have become too normalized for Detroiters in certain areas of the city.

When you think back to what contributed to his two successful mayoral campaigns, it was hope. He gave Detroiters something they had forgotten or never knew — that they were capable of and entitled to more than they had gotten in decades. Perhaps his release will energize what many have projected to be a sleeper mayoral campaign in 2021.

If nothing else, his release is a signal that it is time to move forward, together. The intense and divisive lines many took on him and his issues severed friendships and neighborhoods like no other. And yet, that same divide can be credited or blamed for where Detroit is today.

Like many others, I will wait to see where Kilpatrick lands and the impact of the undeniable infatuation so many have with him and his every word and move, supporters and critics, alike.

Perhaps what’s next for him and Detroit just became more promising.

Karen Dumas is a communications strategist who served as chief of communications for the city of Detroit under Mayor Dave Bing.